This past March, when the 2008 Elite season opened, all anyone hoped for was a season that mirrored the excitement, drama and fish-catching success of 2007. Now, as the pros enter this final event at Lake Oneida, most sport-watchers would say it's been every bit as good, if not better, than last year.You can put any cliché you want on the Champion's Choice tournament this week — two out in the bottom of the ninth, fourth and goal, turn four on the last lap — but any way you describe it, the Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year title chase is going to overshadow everything else at the tournamentObviously, we'll all be studying Kevin VanDam and Todd Faircloth to see who claims the title, and while I won't predict a winner there, I do think KVD will do well here. The reason is mainly because Oneida will fish totally different than Erie even though, like Erie, this 51,000-acre lake is known for its smallmouth.There are also largemouths here, as Tommy Biffle proved in his 2006 Elite win when he flipped 63-10 from shallow vegetation. Those largemouths should hit jerkbaits and spinnerbaits, two of VanDam's specialties. Remember, also, during last year's Major here that winner Peter T made it into the final by fishing a soft jerkbait.At the same time, Faircloth isn't going to blow his magical year here, so look for him to do well, be it with a Senko, a jig or a spinnerbait. He told me he isn't going to change his approach, which is to fish each day as it comes, unless he gets behind and has to concentrate on largemouths specifically to gain extra weight. Making that decision will depend both on water conditions and KVD's performance.I think Alton Jones can do well here, especially if the jig bite is working in shallow water. Alton told me not long ago he really welcomes the tournaments because they give him a break from the constant demands he faces as Classic champion. Frequently he does as many as four separate newspaper, magazine or Internet interviews a day — when he's not doing a speaking engagement, public appearance or photo shoot somewhere else.
Because he had good success here last July, and because he's just plain good with any kind of soft plastics, Peter Thliveros bears watching. He's had an up-and-down season since his Southern Open win in January, and he's a better fisherman than his current 35th place ranking.We haven't heard much out of Dave Wolak this season, but he has two Top five finishes here in 2006 and 2007, and, like Peter T, he's overdue this year for a strong finish. The North Carolina pro is good with a jig or a jerkbait, and he told me that while he thinks smallmouth will dominate the Oneida catch, he's certainly willing to target largemouths if he needs to. Wolak goes into the tournament in 29th place in Classic points, but he's just 18 points ahead of Marty Stone in 36th, so you know he's going to be fishing hard to stay in the big show, as is Peter Scott Rook might be someone to watch this week, as could Shaw Grigsby. Rook holds down 10th overall in the AOY points standings while Grigsby, coming off an 8th place finish last week at Erie, sits in 25th. I like them both because of their overall versatility with soft and hard baits, a skill that has served them well throughout this season.Denny Brauer could have a good tournament here, not only because he's so good with a flipping stick, but also because he's in 37th place — the real bubble position — for the 2009 Classic. He's my long shot choice. He missed last year's Classic due to knee replacement surgery, and he definitely wants a chance at the Red River. Brauer has also had an up-and-down season, but Oneida could really make this a good year for him.